Les McCann

Layers

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This groundbreaking jazz synthesizer record is really unlike any other Les McCann ever made. Aside from a three-man percussion section and electric bassist Jimmy Rowser, Layers is entirely electronic, one of the first jazz albums with such an emphasis. According to the liner notes, McCann's ambition was to be the entire orchestra he heard in his head, and to that end the record explores the sonic possibilities of the new ARP synthesizer in great detail, though McCann also overdubs himself on electric piano in spots. The variety of tones on the ARP gives McCann a lot to play with, and he mimics woodwinds, horns, strings, slapped bass, and even the intonations of human speech. McCann's kaleidoscopic array of tonal colors and contrasts gives the album a rich, full sound, as does the recording process -- Layers was the first album ever to be recorded in 32-track format. But what really gives Layers its surprisingly warm, human dimension is how emotionally engaged McCann sounds. He laid most of his parts down in only one take, and allowed different sections to flow directly into one another, producing two side-long continuous suites. The resulting stream-of-consciousness feel -- not to mention the near-one-man format -- seems to free up McCann's sense of personal expression; there's a pronounced mood of reflection and nostalgia on the slower, spacier pieces, and on the funkier groove numbers, McCann works his new instrument like a kid in a candy shop. It's true that in some places, Layers is more about texture than theme development, so traditional jazz fans likely won't find it much more than a curiosity. In truth, it's pretty avant-garde -- not in its sound (we're not talking Sun Ra's Atlantis), but certainly in its sensibility; this music is truly forward-looking and ahead of its time.

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